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31 May 2011 @ 02:53 am
In Defense of Lieutenant Schrank  
I’ve only posted one actual character defense here, since other members have already, excellently defended all the other characters I wanted to see defended in the past. But I’ve been getting an urge to defend another character who, as far as I know, has not had anyone else defend him. He seems to be alternately misunderstood or outright ignored rather than hated, but that’s a pity too. He really doesn’t deserve the common, dismissive raps he gets. He’s a deeper character than he may appear to be on the surface.

I’m speaking of Lieutentant Schrank from West Side Story. I’ll admit that I wasn’t that taken with the character myself at first, but more recently I have learned some things that made me completely change my mind about him. Mostly I write this from experiences with the film, but I believe it can apply to the original musical just as well. The general consensus among fans is that he’s flat-out bigoted, but I don’t think there’s conclusive proof of that (even though there is evidence, I’ll grant that). I have also seen him described as an out-and-out villain. That was the last straw, especially for a fandom where all the characters are very flawed and there really doesn’t appear to be one true villain among any of them.

So, what in the world has Schrank done to get such a notorious reputation? Let’s examine the facts.


For those not in the know, West Side Story concerns conflicts between two rival gangs in New York City. It also involves the ill-fated modern Romeo and Juliet, in the characters of Tony and Maria, but since Schrank doesn’t have much to do with them, that’s a tale for somewhere else.

Schrank is first seen near the beginning of the film. He breaks up a fight between the Puerto Rican Sharks and the Anglo Jets, and then demands to know from a beaten Jet which of the Puerto Ricans attacked him. Despite their dislike of the Sharks, the Jets don’t want to help their nemesis the Lieutenant in any way and mockingly say that the beating was done by a cop, maybe two of them. Both gangs continue to be obstinate, pushing the embittered Schrank to the end of his patience. He routs the Sharks out and then tries to appeal to the Jets, telling them they need to get along with the rival gang. If they don’t, he growls, he’ll beat them up and drag them to jail to rot.

Schrank’s most infamous scene is towards the middle of the production, right after plans for a rumble have been made at a war council. He enters Doc’s store and observes the two gangs pretending to be getting along in an attempt to fool him. He doesn’t buy it. He speaks with a false air of being impressed, which quickly degrades into a series of insults directed at the Sharks.

Schrank: Headquarters hears about this, l may even get a promotion. Good deal all around, huh, Bernardo? l get a promotion, and you Puerto Ricans get what you've been itchin' for. Use of the playground, use of the gym. . . . The streets, the candy store. . . . So what if they do turn this whole town into a stinkin' pigsty?

**Bernardo leaps up in anger. Others move to stop him from lunging.**

Schrank: Don't stop him! He wants to get home, write letters to San Juan, tell 'em how he's got it made here.

What l mean is, clear out! l said, clear out! Oh, yeah, sure, l know—it's a free country and l ain't got the right. But l got a badge. What do you got? Things are tough all over. Beat it!


After the Sharks depart, whistling My Country Tis of Thee, Schrank tries to get the Jets to tell him where the rumble is going to be. They refuse, even when he says (in an attempt to get their cooperation) that he’s for them and he’ll even lend a hand in the rumble if things get rough. When he meets with continued resistance, he loses all patience and starts taunting the Jets.

Schrank: Why don't you get smart, you stupid hooligans?! l oughtta take you to the station and throw you in the can right now. You and the tinhorn immigrant scum you come from! How's your old man's d.t.'s, A-Rab? How's the action on your mother's side of the street, Action?

Action: **furious, he tries to attack. Other Jets hold him back.**

Schrank: **laughs.** One of these days there won't be anybody to hold ya.


Certainly, much of his behavior in the scene is despicable. The film, which is the source of the quotes here, toned some of his comments down a bit. In the stage play he says a couple of other things that do make it sound more like he probably is racist. But the shooting script for the film provides some insight that puts a bit of a different slant on things. As far as I know, what happens next is the same in both the film and the play.

After the Jets leave, with Schrank yelling after them that he’ll find out where the rumble is, he turns back to Doc. According to the directions in the script (and according to Simon Oakland’s excellent performance in the film), he is shamefaced. He says that headquarters keeps telling him to understand the gang members, which he cannot seem to do. Doc is unmoved. Schrank finally blurts, “You try keeping a bunch of hoodlums in line and see what it does to you!” He then turns and storms out, and, according to the script, he is hounded by guilt.

Schrank appears three more times, but nothing of particular notoriety happens in those scenes.

Again according to the script, when describing him in his first scene, he has an outwardly pleasant manner until his venom and fear cause him to snap.

Venom? Why? Well, it certainly seems understandable enough. He appears to be a man who has been on the police force for years, struggling for most of that time to control the street gang problem in Manhattan. He has witnessed who knows how many gang wars and seen Heaven knows how many people get hurt or die from them. By now he’s embittered and angry over his helplessness to prevent the rumbles and the gangs’ stubbornness in refusing to listen to reason.

And as for fear. What is he afraid of? The script doesn’t specify. However, it’s likely that it could be that he fears his helplessness. He fears the outcome of another rumble and who could get hurt or killed. Perhaps his taunting is, by now, the only way he feels he can fight back against the obstinate teens.

Pretty much all of the outrageous things he says could very well be products of these feelings rather than proof that he is actually racist. At some time or another, everyone blurts out horrid things that they don’t really mean. And Schrank’s shame and guilt are very telling. He is not beyond feeling; he knows he was acting terribly. And his explanation to Doc almost directly echoes the idea that his years of trying in vain to get through to the gangs have taken their toll and changed him for the worse.

There is the question of why he mainly seems to appeal to the Jets when trying to get the gangs to stop being so stubborn. He has probably known them longer, as the Sharks seem to have only recently moved in. He may feel more comfortable with the Jets and believe he will have more luck with them, so he kicks the Sharks out in order to talk privately with the Jets. He says equally nasty things to the members of both gangs—although he only snaps with the Jets when he realizes they won’t cooperate and tell where the rumble is.

It is possible that he is racist for real, against many groups and not just the Puerto Ricans. It is possible on the other hand that he has witnessed people of all different backgrounds and ethnicities creating problems in the city and by now he’s embittered enough to simply feel that people everywhere are no good.

Also, even if he is at least somewhat racist for real, so are the Jets. If Schrank is a villain for his comments alone, what about the Jets’ comments? They are hailed by many of the fans as the protagonists of the production. Their bigoted comments are, in general, overlooked. And theirs seem more like the way they probably actually believe, rather than there being a chance that they’re just speaking out in helpless anger, as Schrank may be.

Who really is the villain in West Side Story? Both the Jets and the Sharks have likable traits, but they’re also street gangs looking to get on top and eliminate the competition. Schrank is a policeman trying to keep the peace, but his inability to understand the gangs’ point-of-view and his now-ragged temper only alienates him further from the solution. Every single character is very human and multi-faceted. No one is completely bad. No one is completely good.

If there are true villains in West Side Story, perhaps they are anger, fear, and hatred. These things seem to be at the root of all the conflict within the production, concerning all the characters. Even Tony, in a burst of anger, kills Bernardo after Bernardo fatally knifes Tony’s friend Riff.

The bottom line? There’s just not enough evidence that Lieutenant Schrank is a villain. Certainly he is not an out-and-out villain. Whether he’s bigoted or not is up for debate, but at least he’s human enough to regret what he said. He seems to be a man trying to do the right thing who has gotten extremely jaded and is at the end of his rope. Cut him some slack. He needs understanding just as much as the Jets and the Sharks do.
 
 
Current Mood: nervousnervous
 
 
 
petzipellepingo: wss shrank by tafs_iconspetzipellepingo on June 3rd, 2011 06:47 pm (UTC)
Hmm... I'd definitely agree with the venom and fear notions, especially with the fear that things have simply gotten beyond his control - or really anyone's control at this point.

It is possible that he is racist for real, against many groups and not just the Puerto Ricans
Possibly, although we really only see his interactions with Puerto Ricans. And then he makes remarks like "Don't you people have any aspirin", I've always found highly prejudiced people to refer to groups/individuals they despise as "you people/those people, etc".

Is he the villain of the piece? Not at all, IMO the true villain is hatred - hatred of anyone or anything "different".

Whether he’s bigoted or not is up for debate, but at least he’s human enough to regret what he said. He seems to be a man trying to do the right thing who has gotten extremely jaded and is at the end of his rope. Cut him some slack. He needs understanding just as much as the Jets and the Sharks do.


Nods. Nice analysis.
Lucky_Ladybug: kolchak_vincenzoinsaneladybug on June 3rd, 2011 06:52 pm (UTC)
Yeah, I think that feeling of utter helplessness would definitely be enough to push his fear and anger into overdrive.

True, but there's also the comments he makes to the Jets, such as "you and the tinhorn immigrant scum you come from." That really makes it sound like, to me at least, that if he's prejudiced against anyone, it's against more than just the Puerto Ricans.

And exactly. Maria summed that up very well in her final speech, when she says that everyone killed Tony with hate rather than bullets.

Thank you!
mapol on February 25th, 2017 11:22 pm (UTC)
Good point, insane ladybug!
The fact that Lt. Schrank made the "You and that tinhorn immigrant scum ya come from" and the "How's your old man's D. T.'s A-Rab?" and the "How's the action on your mother's side of the street, Action?" comments indicates that Schrank is not only prejudiced against the Puerto Rican Sharks, but against all other immigrants, ethnic groups and familial backgrounds that are unlike his own, in any way.

Lt. Schrank is very much a part of the system that leaves the Jets, the Sharks and other people like them competing for the crumbs that society has left for them.
mapol on February 25th, 2017 11:47 pm (UTC)
Yup!
Maria's angry speech of

"You all killed him! (meaning Tony), and my brother and Riff! Not with bullets and guns. With hate! Well, I can kill too, because I have hate."

indicates that Maria has discovered her true feelings: That she, too, has enough anger and hatred to be capable of killing or whatever.
mapol on February 25th, 2017 11:18 pm (UTC)
So, if Lt. Schrank hates anybody who's unlike himself, his
prejudices were born, at least in part, from years of being on the police force of NYC, and seeing the ugliest, most unattractive aspects of life, which often re-enforces a cop's prejudices.
mapol on February 25th, 2017 11:27 pm (UTC)
The fact that Schrank hated both the Jets and the Sharks is indicated by
the fact that he was so angry when the Jets refused to give him the whereabouts of where the upcoming Rumble was to take place that he finally said "I'll find out where it's gonna be! But be sure to finish each other off before I get there! 'Cause if ya don't, I will!"

Inotherwords, Lt. Schrank believes that both the Jets and the Sharks alike are people who deserve to be squashed into oblivion.
Lucky_Ladybug: schrankinsaneladybug on February 28th, 2017 11:06 am (UTC)
Re: The fact that Schrank hated both the Jets and the Sharks is indicated by
Or at least, it certainly indicates that he's fed-up and frustrated to no end with all the garbage he's seen from gangs through the years and can't bear to go through it again. He's angry with all gangs, can't understand them, or why they're so determined to kill each other over "owning" pieces of sidewalk. That's what I get from his attitude, anyway. And I am forever intrigued by the notation in the script that says he leaves, hounded by guilt.
mapol on February 28th, 2017 02:14 pm (UTC)
Re: The fact that Schrank hated both the Jets and the Sharks is indicated by
You've made a good point, insane ladybug, about Lt. Schrank being angry and frustrated due to years on the police force and in dealing with the ugly behavior of gangs in general, but I also stand by my opinions that Schrank also does have prejudices against various racial and ethnic groups who are unlike himself, as well.

In any event, however, Lt. Schrank's prejudices are re-inforced by the constant dealing with and trying, without success, to bring the gangs under control.

What cops see in real life is often very ugly, and their biases, prejudices, and embittered attitudes are re-enforced.
mapol on March 3rd, 2017 08:02 pm (UTC)
Lt. Schrank is guilty about what, though?
I'm wondering that, because it seems to me that Lt. Schrank is so steamed and filled with overt anger and prejudice against people, especially gangs, generally, that he doesn't seem to really have much guilt, if any.
Lucky_Ladybuginsaneladybug on March 8th, 2017 10:05 pm (UTC)
Re: Lt. Schrank is guilty about what, though?
That's part of why I found it so fascinating. It indicates that perhaps he does still have more of a conscience than one would think he would with his attitude. Many times a person feels things that one wouldn't think they would, judging from the things they say or do.
mapol on March 9th, 2017 06:53 pm (UTC)
Re: Lt. Schrank is guilty about what, though?
That's an interesting point that's well taken, petzi. Thanks.
mapol on February 25th, 2017 11:23 pm (UTC)
To put it this way:
In West Side Story, there are no good guys, nor are there any bad guys, if one gets the drift.
mapol on February 25th, 2017 11:38 pm (UTC)
WEst Side Story's message has a double-edge sword:
That, on the one hand, anger, fear and hatred are counterproductive, and have deleterious consequences to both the victim(s) and perpetrator(s0 alike, and, yet, on the other hand, the fact that several Jets and several Sharks came together to carry off Tony's body after he'd been shot dead by Chino, hints of possible intergroup reconciliation between the Jets and Sharks.